OF ITSELF, LIKE ITSELF
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE WORD MONOGRAPH in the early pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, as I was just becoming acquainted with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process. The word was applied to, in this case, an extensive study of different kinds of cigar ash as a tool in the identification of criminals, but I came to know the word to denote a collection of thoughts around a common central subject, an examination of a theme over much time and many case histories. And, while the word is predominantly used to label written studies….collections of essays, the building of a theory, etc., I have always admired the “monographs” which have become the signature works of great photographers.
Robert Franks’ iconic The Americans is surely a monograph, as his eye builds a mosaic-like profile of this country across all its race and class lines. The first eerie series of portraits by Diane Arbus is also a monograph, as is Edward Steichen’s staggering museum exhibit The Family Of Man. In this age of self-publishing, it’s possible for photographers to organize book collections of their work along whatever thematic lines they choose, and, even though its role is vastly different in the present century, the book format is at least a way to contain one’s theme within fixed physical borders. And that may be why I still find it a comfortable format.
It’s been some time since I tried such a project (such as the one with which this blog shares its title), mostly because I never seemed to have quite enough images to flesh out the theme I was trying to present. And then there’s the problem of subject matter. People naturally expect photo collections to be “about” something, and the thing that unifies a set selection of pictures for me may be absolutely meaningless to the viewer. But with the distance of some twenty years of shooting in the digital domain, I’ve given it another go. My new book Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is nothing more than a chance to examine, in as broad a variety of pictures as I can, of the properties of “available light”. I never set out to deliberately boycott flashes or artificial illumination, but I find that the preparation that accompanies their use tends to slow me down and make me lose shots. Moreover, I find that the modeling properties, mysteries and drama of light often makes it the star of a picture all by itself. Most importantly, I see the original object of photography, that is, harnessing light to one’s purpose, as its most enduring and seductive feature, and I always choose the most direct route, from simple cameras to fast lenses, to achieve that goal.
The other objective in compiling Fiat Lux is to force myself into an editorial conundrum. I deliberately kept the total number of images in the book low to make myself make tough choices about (a) whether I have a style at all, and (b) which shots are essential to an understanding of that style, assuming I’d vanish off the earth tomorrow with nothing but this slim volume to explain myself to interested parties. I’ve had several people ask me, over the years, why I didn’t “just put out a book”, but, of course, I never “just” do anything, and so a certain amount of self-doubt and agony has gone into the process. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a sneak preview of some of the collection’s pages, as well as the option to order it, can be found here. Is it a monograph? Perhaps more of an autograph. Or an autobiography. Captions and labels are pretty useless, anyway, if the pictures aren’t there. The important thing is to show what you can show, and move on to the next picture. Thank God there’s always another picture.
HOME SWEET STUDIO
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PEOPLE WHO OPERATE ON INSTINCT SO MUCH OF THE TIME, photographers certainly can make things unnecessarily complicated. We buy gear we don’t need, thinking that machinery alone will unstick our stuck imaginations. We overthink set-ups. We overthink post-processing. We put a lot of junk in our own path, thinking that more of everything will make better pictures. Maybe it’s a native human need to exercise control. But sometimes, as now, we are all reminded that control can be elusive, or worse yet, a mirage.
Making photographs isn’t about having all the conditions we’d prefer. It’s more about managing the conditions we’ve got. That’s always been the case, although our present Great Hibernation has made it a lot more obvious. Take the idea of a “studio”. The term can conjure visions of vast banks of backdrops, lights, high-end gear…a professional space, if you will. But at bottom, it’s really just a place to work, and, ideally, to exercise choice over technique and intentions. There are really no official tools, no approved physical location for a studio. Like many others, I’ve been recently reminded that we only need a few things to create one: a knowledge, inside our homes, of where light goes and what it does during the day: the ability to tell time: and a fair bit of awareness of what our camera can and cannot do. If you have these things, you’ve got a studio.
Think through the process: if you have windows, and if you know which way the sun tracks across the sky hour by hour, you already have multiple sites to get different kinds of light depending on your need. One window for harsh midday high-contrast illumination, a dirty one for diffused, etc. As to tools, absent formal studio gear, everything in your house is a potential prop. And then there’s the advantage afforded by all the extra time we find ourselves awash in: that is, the leisure to plan a shot, whether over hours or days. In essence, you’ve got time to tweak like you’ve never tweaked before.
Working within a finite interior space over an extended period, you can really learn its every feature and behavior. For example, I discovered, earlier this week, that a small stained glass window in my guest bathroom casts an intense kaleidoscopic pattern on a reflective counter-top for only fifteen minutes every afternoon. Stumbling on this, I threw a random object into the warm orange glow just to see what kind of permanent image I might eventually want to make with it. I didn’t get back to the room for another three days, by which time I had a rough concept for what I wanted to model the light on. Using the original shot’s shooting data, replicating the exact time of day and exposure settings (and then varying from them) posed no problem, and so I had, in very rudimentary terms, the control normally associated with a “studio”, whatever that word means.
All workspaces are equal once they are maximized and personalized. You don’t need a special locale to make pictures…..or, more to the point, you can make any locale special once you’ve bent it to your will. Right now, we’re trying to bar entry to all invaders from outside, but light will always get a pass. Harness that, and the rest will fall into line.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOLLYWOOD IS ONE OF THE SELECT LOCALITIES in the world’s largest democracy where royalty is not only tolerated but slavishly sought after. The crown (or crowns, plural) transfer from the recently fallen to the newly anointed with predictable regularity, but the ritual is always the same: we love the common people (they’re just like us!) until they are lucky enough to escape our ranks, after which we, in turn, adore them, despise them (who do they think they are?), forgive them, and adore them anew.
In terms of photography, the camera seeks out ever new lovers, nearly all of them human, and therefore fleeting. A careful study of Tinseltown, however reveals that the true royalty, the royalty that endures, is the real estate. And even in a town where “reality” is defined by whether you shoot on location or on the back lot, Hollywood harbors plenty of actual places where actual events actually occurred. Some are on the bus tours (Marilyn Monroe slept here), while others require a bit more digging. One of the industry’s most prestigious addresses is smack dab in a section so spectacularly tacky that, by virtue of merely being merely ostentatious, it seems positively muted.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named in memory of Teddy, not Franklin) survives in legend not because it served as a studio or corporate cradle for the film industry, but because it was the first time the town turned out to honor….itself. Then make an annual habit of it. Hey, if you want modesty, live in Des Moine, okay?
The Roosevelt earned its filmic pedigree from the get-go, financed in 1926 by a group that included MGM chief Louis B.Mayer and screen idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (two-fourths of the founding quartet behind United Artists Pictures, along with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith). Two years later, the hotel hosted a modest little dinner for 270 guests to fete honorees of the newly organized Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, some three months after the actual awards had been handed out, and minus the nickname “Oscars”, which would come about four years later.
Over the decades the Roosevelt and its across-the-street neighbor the Chinese Theatre (which opened within months of the “R”‘s premiere) saw a fairly staid business district transformed into “Hollywood & Highland” (trade mark)…. Sucker Bait Central, a day-glo drag whose countless souvenir stops, IMAX pleasure palaces, low-rent novelties and neon knock-offs raised tackiness to the status of a religious movement. Meanwhile, the hotel’s crazy-quilt architectural style (‘Spanish Colonial Revival’…and, yes, there will be a test later), with its coffered ceilings, mid-century pool cabanas and wrought-iron chandeliers, was just fake-elegant enough to pass for average in a town renowned for its, er, flexible relationship with “class”. Rolling through the years with an occasional ownership transfer and the odd walk-on in movies like Beverly Hills Cop II and Catch Me If You Can, the Roosevelt has recently offered lodging as a contest prize on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and landed landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #545.
The Roosevelt’s photographic riches lie chiefly in its extremely dark main and elevator lobbies, its still-regal pool area and the legendary Cinegrill Lounge. The lobbies, at least for handheld shots, require high ISOs, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. Flash may not be verboten but you won’t like the result, trust me. Indeed, the soft gold afforded by natural light washing into the murk from outside brings out the warmth of the Spanish textures, and adds a little tonal nostalgia to the scene. All things together, the Roosevelt stands as a monument to real occurrences, some of them fairly historically significant, in The Town That Invented Phony. And that’s the main challenge in Hollywood: if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.
PALING BY COMPARISON
A good sunset to the naked eye, but rendered very blue by the camera’s auto white balance setting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN HOW MANY PICTURES YOU NEED TO SHOOT, over a lifetime, to develop the kind of eye that will deliver more keepers more often, you have to make peace with the taking of many, many images that do not, strictly speaking, “matter”. They’re either uninteresting or indifferently executed or mere technical exercises that don’t emotionally stick. However, that does not mean they are a waste of time, since the practice meter is running whether you’re making magic or mud. And with some mindfulness, you can get into the habit of harvesting something worth knowing, even in the most mundane of shoots.
Just straying from your standard procedures in very small particulars can show you new options for shaping or salvaging a photo. In the two comparison shots seen here, there is only one thing that distinguishes the first picture from the second one; the camera’s white balance setting.
I just am not a fan of shooting on auto modes or default settings, for the simple reason that they are designed to produce average, not extraordinary pictures. They prevent us from making a total dog’s breakfast of an image, but they also deny everyone choice except, weirdly, the camera.
On the particular shooting expedition seen here, I was seeing a warm, full-on golden hour of pre-sunset, the rich oranges and browns visible even in shade. However, the camera’s auto white balance, which reads the temperature of light to “see” white the way we do, was delivering a lot of blue. The simple switch to a “shade” setting rendered even the deepest shadows as warmly as my eyes did.
The point is, this image was part of an uneventful afternoon’s casual stroll, yielding nothing in the way of “legacy”-level work. It was simple journeyman practice. What makes such tiny technical decisions valuable is how instinctual they can become when repeated over thousands of pictures, how available they become as tools when the picture does matter. Pictures come when they’re ready. With luck, building on the lessons from all those “nothing” pictures mean you’ll be ready as well.
ISLANDS IN THE SHADOWS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIFTY-PLUS YEARS INTO MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, I now regard my earliest concept of a “good picture” as I regard other ideas of my youth….that is, seeing how I viewed the world given the limited scope of my own experience. When I first started making my own pictures, my models were drawn from the pages of the then-dominant photo magazines, like Life, Look, and National Geographic. Thus, for me, “good” photographs served either the reportorial functions of a news assignment or the color-saturated visions of landscape lovers. And that, for me, back then, was more than enough.
Both these kinds of images favored a fairly literal translation from the actual into the photographed: interpretation and abstraction was not anything I gave serious thought to, since I wanted my simple box-camera creations to look like “real photographs”. Art photography certainly existed, but very much at the edges of the culture. Most museums, by the early 1960’s, had still not mounted their own photographic exhibitions. Most popular photography, shaped by a large middle-class consumer culture (think Kodak Instamatic), was candid and personal in nature. Most people wanted Grandma to look like Grandma, unfiltered through any Warholian irony, commentary or experimentation. It was still a compliment for someone to say of your pictures that they “looked like a photograph”.
Strangely, one of the things that revised my thinking on what was “good” was an increased awareness of the works of some of the first photographers, pioneers who sweated mightily to wrangle the infant media into something like reliable performance. In their work with ever-changing combinations of plates, media, lenses and emulsions, the first photogs’ breakthrough photographs often failed from a purely technical viewpoint, producing irregular patches of light appearing randomly like islands in a sea of shadows.
But what these wizards’ first attempts often achieved, almost by accident, was the first real abstraction in photography: pieces of reality, rather than its totality: hints of the truth which invited speculation, examination. New questions were posed: what was missing, and did it matter if it wasn’t there? Could a photographer, in fact, deliberately extract parts of the “whole” picture, letting the minimum speak for everything that was left out? I gradually began to wander in search of answers to these questions.
There are times when a picture speaks louder the less it says. My original orientation to “good” images, seeing them as the most faithful translation of the literal onto film, expanded gradually to include whatever visual language communicates best in a given picture. Sometimes, in some very key instances, it helps to think like the first practitioners, who discovered, however haphazardly, that mere reality sometimes comes up short.
TWO SKIES, ONE GOAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I HAVE TO MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS ON AN OVERCAST DAY, I actually pray that the weather will deteriorate even further, since a dramatically lousy sky can create better results than an indifferent overcast. Murky weather mutes colors to the texture of bland dishwater, whereas rapidly shifting, strongly contrasty conditions can actually boost colors or create a dimensional effect in which foreground objects “pop” a bit. Keep your rainy days. Give me stormy ones.
Some days an uneven, rolling overcast contains dread darkness on one side and unbroken sun on the other, simulating the effect of a studio in which the subject is floodlit from front but staged against a somber background. This strange combination of natural lighting conditions confers an additional power on even the most mundane objects, and the photographer need do nothing except monitor the changing weather from minute to minute and pick his moment.
I love the architectural features of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, such as the section of one of the exhibit hall rooves, seen above. However, in fair or even grey weather, it has less impact than when it’s front-lit against a threatening cloud bank, so, on a rotten day, it’s worth checking and re-checking to see if it’s been amped up by “jumping away” from the background clouds. Likewise these palm trees:
Simply capitalizing on changes in lighting conditions can create more opportunities than all the lenses and gear in the world. Cheap point-and-shoot or luxuriant Leica, it’s all about the light….plentiful, free, and ever-changing. The ability to sculpt strong images from this most basic commodity is the closest thing to a level playing field for every kind of photographer.
PICTURES WITH A LEG (OR LEGS) TO STAND ON
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU HAVE SEEN THEM A MILLION TIMES. Those brave souls who, despite multiple trips to Failed Fotoland, optimistically point their cel cameras at distant and dark objects, hoping their puny on-board flashes will illuminate cavernous concert halls, banish shadows from vast cathedrals, or, God bless them, turn the night sky into a luminous planetarium. They have faith, these people. But they don’t often take home the prize.
Immense, dark masses of subject matter, from mountain sides to moody urban streets, simply cannot be uniformly exposed with a sudden lucky burst of on-camera flash. The only way to gather enough light to get a usable exposure of such things is to leave your shutter open long enough to let more light soak in. Think dribble instead of flood. Time exposures are remarkably effective in “burning in” an image slowly, but they have their own science and technique, and they must be patiently practiced. They are the dead opposite of a quick fix, but they are worth the trouble.
With today’s editing software, it’s easier than ever to customize even your best time exposures, combining several shots taken over a given time sequence to arrive at a satisfying balance of elements. In the above picture, I wanted to show the colorful “Field Of Light” installation created by artist Bruce Munro for Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, which blankets a desert hillside with over 30,000 globes of color-shifting light. I set up my tripod about a half-hour before local sunset and took exposures five minutes apart until about forty minutes into the onset of evening.
From that broad sequence, I selected two frames; one taken before dark, in which the underlying detail of the hill (desert plants, rocks, etc.) could still be seen, and one taken just after the sky had gone dark to the naked eye, but blue to the camera. I then composited the shots in Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” mode, which is a bit like stacking two backlit slides and gradually changing how much of each can bleed into the other. My object was to get both a blue, but not black, twilight sky and at least some detail from the natural terrain. Neither individual shot could achieve all of this alone, however, given the ease of doing an exposure fusion in nearly any kind of photo software these days, it was a snap to grab the best elements of both frames.
Epilogue: during the fairly long stretch of time I was standing behind my tripod, I counted over two dozen separate visitors who boldly stepped up, aimed their cellphones, cranked off a quick flash, and loped away, muttering something like, “well, that didn’t work.” Some shots are like low-lying fruit, and some have to be coaxed out of the camera. Knowing which is which, ahead of time, makes for happier results.
THE BLUE LION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CONDUCT TOURS FOR KINDERGARTEN STUDENTS AT PHOENIX’ MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM, the world’s largest collection of its kind on the planet. Frequently, I ask my young guests, who are viewing various animal-inspired music exhibits in the Asia gallery, why the sculpted lions seen on South Korean chimes are blue. Now, in fact, there are no lions in Korea, so in summoning the big cat’s strength and courage as a protective symbol for their music, the locals probably had to try to imagine one, including its features and hues. But pose this question to a five-year-old and the answers are far more instinctual:
“They wanted to”.
“Cause it looks cool that way”.
“It’s their lion…they can do what they want.”
Never do these children suggest that the lion is blue because the Koreans don’t know the “correct” color, nor do they think that there’s anything about its color that renders it “inaccurate”. And when I ask if they’ve ever used a “different” crayon to color something just the way they want it, every hand shoots up. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?
It’s my coloring book. I can do what I want.
Early color photography was about reproducing nature faithfully, accurately recording and reproducing reality. That makes sense, since you must have a standard before you can wander away from that standard. And at a time when color imaging was a novelty, science understandably put the emphasis on “getting it right”, which for publication and printing purposes, was a big enough mountain to climb, at first.
However, we have long since entered a phase in which the colors which nature or our eyes have assigned to an object is only one way, not “the” way to creatively depict it. We can use color counter-intuitively, emotionally. We can cast an image in every aspect of the rainbow, not merely within the narrow channel of “reality”. Color interpretation is surely as important as exposure or any other aspect of making a picture. In the above photo, my mind needed this old row house to be drenched in the burned gold of sunset. Since I was shooting at one in the afternoon, that wasn’t going to happen, so….
And if we forget to think with a child’s suppleness as we age into old habits, the next generation is always there to prod us back into the same state of wonder that makes a five-year-old perfectly okay with creatively colored animals. Recent retro movements among shooters, for example, include the simulation of improperly processed film, which is an optional filter on many of today’s phone apps. It’s a deliberate choice to take the quirky color caused by a lab error and turn it into an interpretive tool.
The over-arching rule here is: try it and see what happens. You don’t need to defend your choice to a committee or write a lengthy treatise (like this one) on why it’s justified.
You just have to wonder what a blue lion might look like.
WAIT FOR IT….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREATEST PERKS IN DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY is making it easy and affordable to squeeze off as many shots on a given occasion as was only possible, in films days, for well-financed pros. The history of photojournalism is rife with stories of shooters who shot four, five, even six rolls of film to produce four magazine illustrations….a yield ratio that made put those same shots insanely beyond the budget of John Q. Viewfinder. Simply put, many of us just could not afford to shoot enough bad frames to get to the good ones.
That’s all in the past now. if we update our thinking.
We still have a tendency, when shooting a subject, to stop too soon, that is, as soon as an acceptable image emerges. Give many of us 60% of what we were going for, and we tend to stand down, move on, and live with a result that we may later see as a compromise. That’s old thinking based on our years of “I only have ten shots left”, and the idea of budgeting a finite commodity, like film frames. It’s important now, however, to actually develop the habit of over-shooting, of covering our targets from as many conceptual approaches as possible. Close shot. Medium shot. Reverse angle. Looking down from above. A few tries shooting at the “wrong” shutter speed or aperture. In other words, don’t settle too soon.
I had a great subject in a recent walk across a small footbridge as a kayaker began a slow trek that would eventually take him toward me, underneath my stance atop the bridge, and then back into brilliant sunlight. He was taking his time, so that I could take mine, and I began by thinking that the shot I wanted was the easiest one, as he approached me head on. However, something told me that his relationship to the light would change dramatically as he crossed under the bridge, and it did.
As he emerged from beneath the span, I shot him in a straight overhead, and then came the money shot, as the kayak seemed to divide the water into rich, detailed ripples on the right side of the boat, and shining sparkles on the other side. Hardly a world-beating shot, but far more dramatic than the one I originally thought I wanted. Had I decided to accept the first frame, the third one would never have been captured. It certainly was no great technical struggle to take the final picture, nor were the extra few seconds a major strain. Simply, the deciding factor was to want the picture, and to wait long enough for it to come to me. It was worth it:
If you must err, err on the side of taking too many shots of something. It’s a lot easier to trim away the excess than to mourn over the miracles that never got born.
YOU’RE IN MY SHOT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.
GRABBING THE GLOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH YOU TAKE IS OF CONSEQUENCE.
That doesn’t mean that every subject you shoot will “matter”, or that every mood you capture will be important. Far from it. However, every frame you shoot will yield the most positive thing you could hope for in your development. Feedback. This worked. God, this didn’t. Try again with more of this. One more time, but change the angle. The light. The approach. The objective. Nothing that you shoot is time wasted, since the positive and negative information gleaned is all building toward your next ah-ha miracle.
Your greatest work has to come as the total of all the building blocks of all the little details you teach yourself to sweat. And that is why you must, I repeat with religious fervor, Always Be Shooting. Something from a photo that won’t change the world will wind up in the photo that will. The what-the-heck experiment of today’s shot is the foundational bedrock of tomorrow’s. You are always going to be your most important teacher, and you get better faster by giving your muscles lots of exercise.
Light changes, those hundreds of shadows, flickers, hot spots and glows that appear around your house for minutes at a time during every day, are the easiest, fastest way to try something…anything. A window throws a stray ray onto your floor for three minutes. Stick something in it and shoot it. A cloud shifts and bathes your living room in gold for thirty seconds. Place a subject in there to see how the light plays over its contours. Shoot it, move it, shoot it again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The image at left came when a shaft of late afternoon light shot through my bathroom window for about three minutes. I grabbed the first thing I saw that looked interesting, framed it up, and shot it. Learned a little about shadows in the process. Nothing that will change the world. Still.
Many cheap, simple opportunities for learning get dumped in your lap everyday. Don’t wait for masterpiece subject matter or miracle light. Get incrementally better shooting with what you have on hand. Grab the little glows, and use spare minutes to see what they can do to your pictures. And, on the day when the miracle saunters by, you will be ready.
PRECISION C, FEELING A
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU TRAVEL ENOUGH, YOU’LL DISCOVER THAT, OF ALL THE TIMES YOU WANT to take a photograph, there are only a few times in which acceptable picture-making conditions are actually present. For all too many subjects that you experience on the fly, only a small percentage of them allow you the time, light, information or opportunity to do your best. And yet…you do what you must, and trust to instinct and chance for the rest.
Immediately upon arrival in a new town, my mind goes to one task, and one task only: sticking anyone else with the driving, so I can take potshots out the car window as I see fit. I have no need to head the posse or lead the expedition. You be in charge, big man. Get me to the hotel and leave me to make as many attempts as possible to put something worthwhile inside my camera.
Of course, this means that I have to pay at least some attention to how insanely you drive…shortcuts, rapid swerves, jolts and all. And, hey, couldn’t you have lingered a millisecond longer after the light went green, since I was just about to create an immortal piece of street art, instead of the muscular spasm I now have frozen forever on my memory card?
When shooting from a car, there are lots of things that go out the window (sorry), among them composition, exposure, stability, and, most generally, focus. En route to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. a few years ago, I fell in love with the funky little tobacco shop you see here. The colors, the woodwork, the look of yesteryear, it all spoke to me, and I had to have it. So I shot it at 1/250 sec, more than fast enough to freeze nearly anything in focus, unless by “nearly anything” you mean something that you’re not careening past at the pace of the average Tijuana taxicab. Result? Well, I didn’t wind up with unspeakable blur, but it’s certainly softer than I wanted. Of course, I could have offered an acceptable alibi for the shot, something based on some variant like, “of course, I meant to do that”, that is, until I outed myself in this post, just now.
But we try. Sometimes it’s the fleeting nature of things seen from car windows that make the attempt even more appealing than the potential result. In that instant, it seems like nothing’s more important than trying to take a picture. That picture. I won’t get ’em all. But as long as I live, I hope I never lose that mad, what-the-hell urge to just go for it.
So okay, seeing as this is a photo of a tobacco shop, this is where one of you cashes in the “close, but no cigar” gag line.
Go ahead, I’ll give you that one.
SHADOWS AS STAGERS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE WHO ADHERE TO THE CLASSIC “RULE OF THIRDS” system of composition often suggest that you imagine your frame with a nine-space grid super-imposed over it, the better to help you place your subject in the greatest place of visual interest. This place is usually at the intersection of several of these grid lines, and, whether or not you strictly adhere to the “thirds” system, it’s useful to compose your shots purposefully, and the grid does give you a kind of subliminal habit of doing just that.
Sometimes, however, I find that the invisible grid can be rendered briefly visible to become a real part of your composition. That is to say, framing through silhouetted patterns can add a little dimension to an otherwise flat image. Leaving some foreground elements deliberately underlit is kind of a double win, in that it eliminates detail that might read as clutter, and helps hem in the parts of the background items you want to most highlight.
These days, with HDR and other facile post-production fixes multiplying like rabbits on Viagra, the trend has been to recover as much detail from darker elements as possible. However, this effect of everything being magically “lit” at one even level can be a little jarring since it clearly runs counter to the way we truly see. It’s great for novel or fantasy shots, but the good old-fashioned silhouette is the most elemental way to add the perception of depth to a scene as well as steering attention wherever you need it. Shadows can set the stage for certain images in a dramatic fashion.
Cheap. Fast. Easy. Repeat.
SEEING THROUGH THE STORM
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.
THE OOOOH FACTOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.
Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.
The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.
And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.
And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..
ON THE SOFT SIDE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S FIRST MOVIE STUDIO WAS A TARPAPER SHACK ON A TURNTABLE. Dubbed by Thomas Edison’s techies as “The Black Maria” (as ambulances were grimly named back at the time), the structure rotated to take advantage of wherever sunlight was available in the California sky, thus allowing the film crew to extend its daily shooting schedule by more than half in the era of extremely slow film stocks. Eventually artificial light of sufficient strength was developed for the movies, and actors no longer had to brave motion sickness just to rescue fair damsels. So it goes.
More than a century hence, some photographers actually have to be reminded to use natural light, specifically window light, as a better alternative to studio lights or flash units. Certainly anyone who has shot portraits for a while has already learned that window light is softer and more diffuse than anything you can plug in, thus making it far more flattering to faces (as well as forgiving of , er, flaws). It’s also good to remember that it can lend a warming effect to an entire room, on those occasions where the room itself is a kind of still life subject.
Your window light source can be harsher if the sun is arching over the roof of your building toward the window (east to west), so a window that receives light at a right angle from the crossing sun is better, since it’s already been buffered a bit. This also allows you to expose so that the details outside the window (trees, scenery, etc.) aren’t blown out, assuming that you want them to be prominent in the picture. For inside the window, set your initial exposure for the brightest objects inside the room. If they aren’t white-hot, there is less severe contrast between light and dark objects, and the shot looks more balanced.
I like a look that suggests that just enough light has crept into the room to gently illuminate everything in it from front to back. You’ll have to arrive at your own preferred look, deciding how much, if any, of the light you want to “drop off” to drape selective parts of the frame in shadow. Your vision, your choice. Point is, natural light is so wonderfully workable for a variety of looks that, once you start to develop your use of it, you might reach for artificial light less and less.
Turns out, that Edison guy was pretty clever.